Miami Herald | by Anna Ceballos and Jeffrey S. Solochek
A contentious proposal that would reshape Florida’s popular Bright Futures scholarship program and other aspects of student financial aid was abruptly postponed ahead of its first public hearing on Tuesday amid growing opposition from student groups.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, is a massive rewrite of the Bright Futures program that currently benefits roughly 112,000 Florida students. It would take away scholarship funds for any credits that students earned through Advanced Placement and related programs they took in high school — something the state has encouraged them to do over several years.
The bill further would limit the types of degrees for which students could receive state financial aid. But it does not specify which ones.
Concerned about the potential impact, student groups have mounted opposition campaigns on social media, launched online petitions, and bombarded lawmakers with emails and phone calls urging them to kill the bill.
Their efforts appeared to have paid off — at least temporarily.
Less than 24 hours before its first scheduled hearing, the bill was pulled from the Senate Education Committee’s agenda. That’s often a sign the bill might not have enough support as currently written.
“He [Baxley] is aware of concerns from outside groups and some concerns Senate colleagues have expressed,” Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta told the Herald/Times on Monday, after the bill’s hearing was postponed. “He wants to listen and talk to some more people before it’s heard in its first committee.”
The proposal is by no means dead. A compromise is likely to emerge on the issue during the 60-day legislative session, though Baxley has not specified what needs to be changed.
“Still evaluating some of the input,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said in a text message Monday evening. “Lots of interest in this bill.”
BRIGHT FUTURES A POPULAR PROGRAM
Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships, which reward high school graduates based on merit and high academic achievement, have long been credited for keeping student debt low in the state.
Students can use scholarships toward tuition whether they attend a public or private university or college. But the amount they get for attending a private university is set at a specific rate. Students who attend a public university can have 75% to 100% of their tuition covered. The program, which distributed $618 million in scholarships in the 2019-20 fiscal year, is funded by the Florida Lottery.
Ahead of the scheduled hearing, Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Shevrin Jones said his office received over 300 phone calls and 600 emails from parents and students who opposed the measure. He even got approached in church on Sunday by a mother whose son had benefited from a Bright Futures scholarship.
“I genuinely hope it doesn’t come back up,” Jones said. “Especially at a time when so many people have lost their jobs and parents are looking for an extra hand up to help their children get into college.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, supports scaling back scholarship awards to students. The move to reshape the $618 million program could save the state money as it faces budget constraints due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Simpson maintains cost savings are secondary to the overarching issue. He says the goal is to make sure scholarships and other forms of financial aid lead students toward a job after graduation.
“When you tell folks that are entering into the college or university system ‘You’re going to have a bright future,’ we are lying to them in some cases,” Simpson told reporters last week. “Because a lot of the degrees that they would receive do not lead to jobs that would create that bright future.”
The bill does not identify the type of degrees. As currently drafted, the bill directs the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education to annually come up with a list of programs that takes into account wages, job openings and estimated job growth in the state. The changes would take effect at the start of the 2022-23 academic year.
SUBJECT TO REVISIONS
Students in programs that are not on the list would receive aid for a maximum of 60 credit hours instead of the 120 hours typically needed for a bachelor’s degree.
“I am hoping this emphasis of connecting the education world with the real world will help some of these degree programs get reshaped to have a degree of employability about them,” Baxley said before the hearing was postponed.
It is unclear if that is a provision that Baxley would consider changing in the future. But he said the provision was drafted because there are plenty of needs in the workforce that go unmet.
Baxley had said he drafted that provision because he doesn’t think students should leave Florida’s universities with a degree and be unemployable and in debt. But others viewed it differently.
“That’s not fair to students who don’t desire to go into any of those fields that are selected by the Board of Governors,” Jones said. “We should not be deciding what field is of importance.”
STUDENTS SPEAK OUT
Lorenzo Urayan, an Orlando artist who plans to attend Ringling School of Art and Design, is worried that the proposed changes might affect his ability to get financial aid. He also disapproves of the idea that the state might try to pressure students into certain areas of study.
“We all play our part to contribute to society,” said Urayan, a senior at Lake Nona High. “It can be really easy to overlook that.”
Urayan is part of a student-led group, Save Bright Futures, that launched an online effort to kill the bill. The opposition campaign amassed more than 71,000 signatures online ahead of the now-postponed Tuesday hearing.
Baxley proposed a provision that would end Bright Futures funding for credits earned through Advanced Placement classes, dual enrollment and other similar high school tracks that also drew strong opposition. He said the state should not pay for students to take the same course twice.
“You shouldn’t have to take the course again and we pay for it again,” Baxley argued.
But some observers suggested that such a proposal could lead to reduced participation in the high-level high school courses that the state has encouraged students to take. Baxley said that wasn’t his intent, and added he is open to fixes.
Lake Nona junior Shaheer Ali took issue with the provision that would defund credits earned through AP and other programs.
“I’ve been working for the Bright Futures requirement since freshman year of high school,” Ali said. “If this bill passes, that hard work essentially goes to waste.”
Photo: Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala SCOTT KEELER TAMPA BAY TIMES